Michelle Hu: A Deaf Audiologist with a Passion for Cooking

I had just finished my Fall semester of my senior year in college. It was winter break and as usual our family piled into the minivan and drove from our home in Ohio up north around the lake to my grandparents’ home in Ontario.

All a college student wants to go on break is sleep right? And sleep I did.

When the sunlight finally hit my eyes I woke up slowly, stretched my limbs in all directions and reached for my hearing aids. I always put the right one on first since that was my better ear. However something was different this morning, I didn’t hear the familiar Phonak hearing aid start up jingle. I felt the sound vibrations on my skin but I didn’t hear anything. My heart dropped like a weight and I frantically switched batteries from my left hearing aid to my right. I tried again. Nothing. I scrambled out
of bed and reached down towards my overnight bag for a new pack of batteries.

By now hot tears were streaming down my face as I prayed for clear sound to come on and let me start my day with confidence. Nothing. I thought about trying a hearing aid on my left worse ear but what was the point. So I just stopped. I sat still.

I stared at the floral print of the comforter around me, tracing the design with my eyes and silently naming the colors over and over.
My mom walked into the room to and immediately knew something was up. I saw her face fall as I told her I couldn’t hear.

May be an image of child, standing and cake

I had grown up with a progressive hearing loss so this wasn’t a new scenario for us. It occurred when I was a toddler, in 1st grade, 3rd grade and 5th grade. This time was different. It had been over a decade since my last drop in hearing. College graduation was only 5-6 months away. I had friends, I was going to travel, I was thinking about going to law school, I had a longterm boyfriend. I was even recently crowned Homecoming Queen – who knew they did that in college?!

Thoughts were swarming around me like fish in a barrel.

“How was I going to complete my classes? Would I ever hear my boyfriend say the words “I love you” to me again? How was I going to have a career? How was I ever going to be independent and live on my own?” These questions went through my mind frantically over the next couple of weeks. I couldn’t even call my best friend or boyfriend because I couldn’t hear. These were the days of T9 messaging so texting was limited.

That night, I remember looking up at the full moon feeling as small as Fievel in the American Tail. I studied the dark and light speckles. I breathed in the silence. I felt the cold of winter. I felt alone, trapped, helpless and broken. I remembered my mom telling me that when I was diagnosed with hearing loss as a toddler, the doctors told her I wouldn’t go beyond a 3rd
grade reading level. Well I’d proved them wrong but right now in this moment I felt like all of my studies and work was for nothing.

A few days later I was in the lobby waiting to have my hearing tested when my mom suggested that perhaps I’d make a good audiologist since I had firsthand experience with hearing loss and hearing aids. I was still unsure of what direction I wanted to go in post graduation and this suggestion floored me. YES. I wanted to help others in a healthcare setting but I’d just never had a pull to a specific field. I’d never really grown up around or knew many people with hearing loss so I didn’t truly understand that I was different, had a high level of resilience or that I was uniquely

My hearing had dropped significantly – however with sudden hearing loss, the recommendation was systemic and intra-tympanic steroid injections. There was only a slim chance that my hearing would recover. However two weeks later I was laying in my boyfriend’s arms when I heard his dog bark. Woof! The sound resonated and I felt the amplification in my ear from my hearing aids. All of the stress and tension melted from my neck and shoulders – for me, all I had wanted was to hear voices and have verbal conversations again.

It was because of that situation and my mother’s suggestion in the waiting room that I was able to put my feet firmly down on a career path. I applied to the Northeast Ohio Audiology Consortium, was accepted and began schooling to become an audiologist.

Michelle Hu at work

It was during our 3rd year that we started to learn about cochlear implants. One night I was excitedly chatting about this with my parents and they told me that I had been a CI candidate since I was young! They had chosen not to move forward since they were wary of the technology at the time and told me that I had adapted and learned how to thrive academically that they did not feel it was a necessity.

I decided to undergo pre-CI evaluations again and was implanted later that year! For the first time in a very long time I could hear my feet shuffle on the carpet, the clicking turn signal of my car, utensils tapping on dishes and leaves rustling with the wind. It took time and practice but eventually I could hear and understand conversation in a dark car and on the telephone. My confidence soared. I no longer had to avoid birthday parties, movie theaters or other social gatherings.

I’ve since moved across the country from Kent, Ohio to San Diego, California to work as a pediatric audiologist. I don’t think I ever would have made such a big move had I not received my first cochlear implant. I did not have the confidence to feel safe walking alone at night or talking on the phone with anyone other than my parents.

With my listening skills and thresholds I get to have with my cochlear implants, I feel like the sky is the limit for me.

About 5 years ago I had the opportunity to scratch culinary school off of my bucket list. It was THE most difficult listening situation that I CHOSE to subject myself to for a long time (8 months!). The tiled floors, stainless steel equipment, appliances, high ceilings, exhaust fans, walls of refrigerators and water constantly running were an educational audiologist’s acoustic nightmare. Not to mention, my chef/professor
had a heavy French accent!

But I endured. I had him wear my FM system, I constantly asked for repetition, I asked my station buddy for clarification, and I took copious notes. I messed up, I spilled things, I ruined dishes, I lost fingertips, I burned myself…AND I mastered sauces, I broke down poultry and seafood, I created menus, I plated, I garnished and it was WORTH it.

I am now the mama of two little girls, two fur babies, military spouse and creator of @Mama.Hu.Hears, an Instagram and Facebook account where I share personal glimpses into my hearing loss journey as a bilateral cochlear implant recipient and pediatric audiologist.

Note from H & V: Michelle has also created a series of infograms for parents:

May be a cartoon of text that says 'The Hearing Loss Related Possible Meanings of "What?" I was focused on what was doing heard vour voice I'm in the habit of but I'm embarassed not hearing so to say what just said get a thought you said second chance lhave listening fatigue and am tired I'm conserving my energy #snotsorry You lost my attention minutes ago HUH!? missed the first few words what you said only heard the 3rd time you yelled my name @mama.hu.hears'
May be a cartoon of text that says 'Signs & Symptoms ofListening Fatigue in Children Hyperactivity (witching hour anyone?) Increased inability to listen Headache Decreased sensitivity Increased sensitivity Unable to identify needs Increased inability to focus Unable to communicate needs Swinging moods Sleepy Irritable @mama.hu.hears Zoned out'